Va-Etchanan ... and a phrase with many echoes

Presented by David P. Stern 16 August 1997 in Greenbelt, Maryland

[* indicates where Hebrew text may be inserted]


      This week's reading is Va-etchanan * , in chapter 3 of Devarim (aka Deuteronomy), although our reading, the middle part of the triennial cycle, begins in chapter 4. I hope you all have your copies ready--copies that include the Hafteroth--because this discussion will lead to other places in the book.

    Preparing a "Dvar Torah" can be a challenge. In some weeks the challenge is to bring up something of broad interest, worthy of comment--and with readings that deal with leprosy, sacrifices, or the census of tribes, that is not exactly easy.

    But in today's reading of Va-etchanan, the opposite situation exists: it contains so much, that no matter what you decide to cover, something noteworthy is sure to be left out.

    Look at some of the contents. First of all, the ten commandments: true, this is not the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, but the recollections of Moses, reminding his listeners of that great occasion. Still, these are the commandments, and the fact they are not word-for-word the same as the ones in Exodus raises all sorts of interesting questions. I do not know what the custom here is --we do stand up when the commandments are read from the book of Exodus, and to play it safe, I will ask everybody to rise when they are read today, too, in the 3rd aliyah.

    There is a lot to say about the commandments, but I will postpone it. Next week I am scheduled to stand here again, the reading will be "Ekev" which tells about the tablets of the law, and that will be a good time to discuss the tablets and the commandments together.

    Then there is the "Shma" in chapter 6--"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." We are in the middle of the triennial cycle, and whether we read it today or not depends on whether we follow the Sephardi tradition of the Ashkenazi one. I suspect that no one here wants to miss the "Shma" if that can at all be avoided, so let me decree here and now that for the purposes of this service, we are all "Sephardim."

    And if this were not enough, there is still the haftarah--Isaiah chapter 40, beginning "comfort ye, comfort ye my people"-- * -- which is why this sabbath is named "Shabbat Nachamu" *. It is the first shabbat after the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both temples, and will be the first of seven "haftaroth of consolation," all from Isaiah, read between now and the new year.

    So there is a lot to choose from! Isaiah will be discussed at the end of this service, while right now let us to discuss yet another part of the riches of Va-etchanan. It is a part you all should be quite familiar with, a line we recite at every service, although we will not read it from the Torah today, because it belongs to the first part of the triennial cycle. It is in chapter 4, verse 39

    Know this day
    And lay it to thy heart
    That the LORD he is God in heaven above
    And upon the earth beneath
    There is none else

This is of course part of "Aleinu", written according to tradition by Rav in the 3rd century, in the city of Nehard'a in Babylonia. Originally "Aleinu" was just part of the Rosh Hashanah services, but congregations liked it so much that it became part of the daily service.

    If you look at Aleinu you will find that, like so many other prayers, much of it is a collection of quotations from the scriptures, and this verse is one of them.

    But there must be something special about these words, because they also reverberate through the later scriptures--like an echo, getting shorter but not fading. The first echo is right here, in the maftir

    Then it re-appears in the story of the spies in the book of Joshua, which is naturally the haftarah of Shelach Lecha * , the story of the spies in chapter 13 of the book of Numbers. Joshua sends spies to probe the city of Jericho, where they stay in the house of a harlot named Rachav. That woman wisely switches sides to support the children of Israel, and her reason is--let me read from the middle of verse 11:

      " For the LORD your God, he is God,
     in heaven above and on earth beneath "

Does this sound familiar? Is this just a coincidence that exactly the same words appear?

    Then move a few centuries ahead, to the time of Elijah the prophet--the haftarah of Ki Tisa, Exodus ch. 30, the story of the golden calf and the second set of tablets. As told in Ch. 18 of the 1st book of Kings, Elijah sets up on Mt. Carmel a contest with the priests of Ba'al--he and they, each would prepare an altar, with wood and a scrifice, and pray to their respective Gods to light the fire. After the priests of Ba'al at their altar have done all they could, with no success, fire descends from heaven and envelops Elijah's altar, and the people who are watching fall on their faces and cry out:   

      "The LORD, he is God, the LORD, he is God."

    the same words that are at the core of the "Aleinu" verse and its echo in the book of Joshua.

    So--this coming Yom Kippur, when the service finally ends with seven repetitions of these words    

      "The LORD, he is God, the LORD, he is God."
you will know where those words came from--not from one place, but from several.

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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 9 June 2002